“Getting Things Done” or GTD for short is probably one of the best known productivity systems today. Its author is David Allen who authored several books on the subject and still occasionally writes, speaks and consults on the topic of productivity and time management.
I believe that, used consistently, GTD may bring great benefits to your wellbeing (like productivity and freedom from anxiety), but it may not work for everyone. Still, I encourage you to try out at least some of the ideas presented by GTD. They may help you build a better system of your own even if you decide that “full GTD” is not for you.
What is GTD and how to use it? The GTD method is divided into 5 steps which help you deal with your tasks without overwhelm or anxiety. The steps are:
- Capture everything! Write, type, record every task, to-do, idea, project, everything you want to handle.
- Clarify what you captured – What does it mean? Is it actionable – something that can be done? Can you break it down into smaller steps? Can someone else take it over? Can you ignore it?
- Organize the things left on the list. Prioritize and categorize. Assign due dates and set reminders.
- Reflect on your to-do list. Look at the tasks and see what your next action should be. Review your list weekly to clean up and update it, and reflect on your progress.
- Engage and simply do the tasks on your list. If you’ve prepared well, there’s no need to think about what to do at this stage, just chose a next action from your list and do it.
Performed consistently, these 5 steps let you “apply order to chaos“, as the GTD homepage boasts. Consistency is one of the main problems that newcomers to GTD usually run into – the other being the implementation of the five-step process. If you decide that “proper GTD” is not for you, try implementing some of the principles below and blending them into your own system.
1. One inbox to rule them all! An inbox is a place (physical or digital) where you put everything you capture. It can be a tray on your desk, a folder on your desk/computer/email, a notebook, an application… Just get used to always using the same place/thing, so when you want to review captured items you don’t have to go hunting in a hundred different locations. This way it’s much more probable that nothing is going to slip through the cracks.
2. Apply the 2 minute rule – if something needs doing and doing it will take 2 minutes or less, just do it! No need to write it down, prioritize it, categorize it, add it to your to-do list and review it, because all of that will certainly take longer than just doing it. If it takes longer than 2 minutes, first figure out if someone else can (and will) do it – if so, give the task to them. If not, write it down on your to-do list or your calendar.
3. If you’re feeling anxious, try doing a “brain dump”, also known as a “mind sweep”, to free your brain from worrying about “open loops” and unfinished tasks. If you need some help, you can find (in the official GTD book and elsewhere) lists of questions meant to trigger your memory about open loops that might be floating around in your head – usually named “trigger lists“. Process the results of the brain dump to see what needs adding to your to-do list.
4. Projects and Someday/Maybe lists – Your to-do list should only have actionable tasks on it. The Projects list should contain all your active projects, to provide a higher-level overview of things you’re doing. Once you finish a task like “research Nigerian dwarf goats” and cross it off your to-do list, you don’t want to forget all about your big project: “raise goats on a farm”. That’s why you include “raise goats” in your Projects list and review this list regularly, determining next actions and adding them to your to-do list. If raising goats doesn’t seem doable at the moment, but you still don’t want to forget about this goal of yours, move it to the Someday/Maybe list, along with any other projects or ideas that you want to do at some point in the future, maybe. Review this list occasionally and use it to choose your next project. In this way, you never forget your current goals, but you also don’t lose important ideas that might otherwise be forgotten.
5. Break down tasks into smaller chunks, until the tasks on your to-do list are so small and non-threatening that you’ll have no problems doing them. It’s a very powerful anti-procrastination tactic!
6. Decide only on the next action – there’s no need to have the whole project figured out, just think about the very next step. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not really sure how to do something. The answer is to proceed step by step. We’ll learn more about the project with every step and it’ll be easier to go further.